Off the fence
Another year, another round of wildfires. True enough, this year they came early due to the prolonged dry spell. But, start they did, with depressing predictability.
Everyone I speak to has a view on how and why these fires start. Most, it has to be said, believe they are no accident. Sure, some could be started by a stray cigarette or by the sun shining on a piece of glass in a field. But surely one has to concede that fires that start far away from passing traffic, and during a cold snap – no matter how dry – are, well, odd.
In May 2011, I witnessed a huge fire at a bog at the townland of Ross on the Castlebar to Pontoon Road. The scene was lunar, post-apocalyptic even. Vast tracts of land once abundant with heather and alive with insect and birdlife – land so beautiful it drew gasps of appreciation from anyone with a whit of awareness of their surroundings – were reduced to lifeless, black humps of earth; the charred, skeletal remains of gorse and heath reaching up as though from a horror-film grave scene.
Bog fires, all forms of wildfire, have a devastating impact on wildlife, including nesting birds. But then, there are some who scoff at such concerns. Sure it’s only a bit of useless scrub, and there are loads of birds, aren’t there?
What about the people who have been affected then, people whose houses and very lives can be at stake? That Ross fire, which burned and burned, reached the edge of someone’s home.
Two weeks ago, my mother was visiting an old friend in Connemara. She was shaken awake at 2am to sparks flying passed the window of her bedroom, to the shouts and roars of fire fighters and to hills red with raging fire. She and her friend watched in terror as flames licked the garden and threatened the oil tank, and travelled up the hill towards the home of a young family.
Last week, I spoke to a Westport couple, who had spent a terrifying 15 hours battling flames alongside their neighbours and a stretched Fire Service. A wildfire had spread over a hill and threatened to engulf their home. They were evacuated twice, and were badly shaken – though heartened by the kindness of those who helped.
All over Mayo, and down through Connemara, these stories have been replicated in recent weeks. Families forced to watch on and pray as their homes, their livestock, their land, the reasons why they live where they live, lie in the path of fire.
Fires are terrible, uncaring things. They have a will of their own, and can quickly get out of control. While some start by accident, many don’t.
Before you strike that match or fling that cigarette – whether unthinkingly or with intent – think. Think about the stretched Fire Service, about fire fighters wearily fighting blazes day and night, and ask yourself, could you live with yourself if a neighbour’s house was burned down? If they were hurt? Or worse?
For now, the rain has come again. Never was I so glad to see it.